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How to Live, How to Die

Philippians 1:20-26

20 According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

22 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not.

23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:

24 Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.

25 And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith;

26 That your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again.


George Sanders, the cynical and sinister film star for over 30 years, took his own life in 1972. In his characteristically simple way he explained in his suicide note, “I am leaving because I am bored.”

Increasingly, there are people who are either so bored with life or so pressed down by the circumstances of life that they do not find life worth living. So every year there are 44,000 Americans who take their own lives—who commit suicide. For every one person who succeeds in a suicide attempt, there are 31 others who try and fail. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 34, and more than 8% of young people aged 18-25 have considered committing suicide. In addition to all the people who are taking their lives, and in addition to the heartache and tragedy that surrounds an experience like that, there is a growing movement in America to glorify suicide and the ending of your own life.

I suppose it is that fact that prompted Jimmy Allen to say some time ago, “It is the task of the church to grow people who want to live and who are unafraid to die. It is part of the Christian faith to give us reasons and resources for living.”

1. Commitment makes us want to live.

In fact, one of the marvelous byproducts of commitment to Jesus Christ is that when a person really believes in him and really makes a commitment to him, they find a new desire to live, a new direction in life, a new destiny in eternity, and a new discipline for life. Whenever and wherever you find a person who has no desire, no direction, no discipline, and no sense of destiny, you can be sure that you have found a person who is missing the key ingredient in life called “commitment.” Commitment to Jesus Christ. For when we come to know him and to follow him, he causes us to want to live and to be unafraid of death.

You can see that so easily in the life and experience of the apostle Paul from the book of Philippians. I want you to look at this passage of scripture because it sets out for us the very purpose of Paul’s life—the purpose in life that he discovered as a result of his relationship with Jesus Christ. Having discovered that meaning and purpose in life, he was saying, “I am ready to live. I am unafraid to die. I am content to suffer. It doesn’t really matter what happens to me so long as I am able to fulfill the great purpose and design of my life.”

The background of this passage is that Paul is in prison in Philippi for preaching the Gospel. The church at Philippi is greatly concerned about him. In fact, their concern led them to send one of their members with a love offering to help take care of Paul’s physical needs. But they are also concerned about his emotional and spiritual needs. They are wondering how this imprisonment is affecting his faith and his outlook on life as he awaits trial.

But Paul’s primary concern is not the outcome of the trial. His primary concern is how he will conduct himself in the meantime. For the purpose of his life is to spotlight, to magnify, and to zero in on Jesus Christ. He says, “It makes little difference to me whether I live, whether I suffer, or whether I die. That doesn’t really matter. The thing that matters is that in no instance will I ever put Jesus Christ to shame. Whatever happens to me, Jesus will be magnified.”

Look at what he says in verse 20: “According to my earnest expectations and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body.” The two words “earnest expectations” are interesting. They literally mean “to stretch the neck.” It is the idea of a man who stretches his neck out in order to peer at some object out in the distance to get a clearer vision of it. It is a picture of a man who is intensely concentrating on one thing. In fact, he is so intensely concentrating on that one thing that all the other things that might distract him are no longer distractions. That is Paul’s way of saying that his life has been narrowed down to one great purpose, or to one great mission. He is zeroing in on the purpose of his life. Now he expresses that purpose for living in both a negative and a positive way.

Negatively, he says, “That it is my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed. I do not want in anything I do, or anything I say, to be ashamed of Jesus Christ, or to bring any shame upon his name.”

Then he expresses the purpose of his life in positive terms. “But that with all boldness, as always, so now, right now in this experience, Christ shall be magnified in my body.” Now the great purpose of his life, the thing that gave meaning to his life was his desire, his intent to magnify Jesus Christ in his life. That word magnify literally means to make great. It means to be conspicuous. In the days of the apostle Paul, the principle of magnification as we know it was not known. We are very familiar with the principle of magnification. We use the telescope to peer out into space and we are able to see more clearly the stars and planets that we otherwise would not know much about. The principle of magnification in a telescope is to enlarge that which is small, to make visible that which is invisible.

Now, we not only use the telescope, but we also use the microscope. With a microscope we look at the minute things of the universe. We are able to see them and distinguish the makeup of those things as a result. But I suppose the most common use of magnification will be experienced again and again this afternoon on television: perched high on top of some stadium there will be a television camera focused down on a football field. We generally get a wide view of the field with most of the players at one time. But every once in a while, the fellow operating that camera will use the zoom lens to magnify that picture and zero in on one player. In fact, sometimes they get so close to a player that you can almost count the freckles on his nose. It draws close that which is far away.

While Paul did not understand the telescope, or the microscope, or the zoom lens of a television camera, he understood the principle of magnification. He was saying, “The one great purpose of my life—the thing that absorbs me and dominates me—is that in no way I shall be ashamed of Jesus Christ, but in every way, I shall zero in on him and focus on him so that he is magnified in my life.”

Paul is ready to live, and he’s unafraid of dying because of this great purpose of his life. In fact, he said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” By that first statement, “for me to live is Christ,” he means that Christ consumes his whole life. Christ is both the object and the subject of Paul’s life. Jesus is his reason for living. His only purpose in life is that he might live for Jesus Christ, and that he might honor and glorify him.

Then Paul continued, “And if I should die, that would be an advantage, or a gain.” That word gain is a business term that literally means “to make a profit.” Paul said that if you look at the bottom line of his life, for him to die would be a net profit. It would not be a loss. It would not be a subtraction. It would be a net gain. For him to live meant living for Christ, but to die would be gain because he had made this commitment to Jesus Christ. Paul had found a meaning and a purpose in life—a meaning and a purpose that were so great that he had both reason and resources for living. It made him want to live, and it made him unafraid of dying.

I want to suggest to you that if you are ever going to find life worth living, if you are ever going to come to a place where you want to live, and you are unafraid of dying, and you are willing to take whatever may come between those two, it will come as a result of a commitment so deep and so abiding that nothing else really matters. The only person I know who is worthy of that kind of commitment is Jesus Christ the Son of God. When you are committed to him, when you can say, “The sole purpose of my life is to magnify Christ,” then I think you will come to the place where you want to live.

It is interesting in this passage of scripture that Paul gives us his philosophy of life and he sums up that philosophy in verse 21 by saying, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He covers in that one verse of scripture the whole scope of life and death, and of time and eternity. Then he goes on to explain some of the perplexity that he is going through in his own personal experience. He says in verse 23, “For I am in a strait betwixt two. I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, but abiding in the flesh is more needful for you.” That word [[strait]] describes a narrow passageway. Paul said, “I am actually hemmed in between two things.”

Now, he is not suggesting that he is trapped between two fates from which he would like to escape. He is not saying that life is bad and that he would like to get out of it, or that death is bad and he didn’t want to experience it. He is not saying that he is trapped between two undesirable things. Rather, he says, “I am torn between two options in life and both of them are enticing. I am torn between the desire to live and the desire to die.”

You see these are not the words of a bitter old man who has grown cynical through the years and says that life is bad and death is bad, but death seems to be the lesser of two evils, so I’ll take it. He is not suggesting that death is the lesser of two evils; he is saying to us that death is the greater of two blessings. It is a joy to live. It would be even a greater joy to die and to go on and be with the Lord. As he evaluates the whole scheme of his life he says, “You know I really desire to depart and to be with the Lord.” The word desire means “to earnestly long or hope for.” The word depart is a naval term that means “to raise the anchor and to set sail.” Paul said, “If I just had my way—if I could have my druthers about this, I think I would like to just raise the anchor and set sail and go on home to be with the Lord.” But he says, “Nevertheless, it is needful for you that I stay.”

In those two verses, he is contrasting his desire and his sense of duty. He would like to go, but he knows that he is needed. Having to make a choice between his desire and his duty—the need that he remain on this earth in order to serve Christ and to meet the needs of Christian people—he said, “I will choose my duty over my desire.” The apostle Paul is always the servant. The apostle Paul is always living the crucified life. What is the crucified life? It’s exactly what Paul was living. It’s when we are faced with a choice between our desires and our duty, and we choose to do our duty.

Sometimes we get to talking about the crucified life in such spiritual and holy terms, that nobody understands what we are talking about. Again, the crucified life is as simple as this—when faced between a choice of your own desires and your duty to Jesus Christ, you put aside your desires and you do your duty. Paul said, “I have come to this conviction in life that while I desire to go to heaven, my duty is to stay here and help you, and so I will do that.” It was his sense of commitment to Jesus Christ and the fact that he was needed that made him want to live.

For anybody to really want to live, they have to have a reason. That reason, sooner or later, must come down to some kind of service. It’s a sense of being needed by somebody else. I want you to know that wealth and the accumulation of things cannot give you an adequate reason for living. To promote your own thing and your own name does not satisfy that deepest longing in the human heart. You were created to serve God, and it is only as you learn to serve him that you will find a reason worthy of staying alive and continuing go on, especially during the hardships of life.

Paul said, “I have found in serving something that makes me want to live.” I wonder if you have found that in your life. Are you living for anything or anybody other than yourself or your immediate family? Have you learned the secret to a meaningful life—being needed and involved in the service of someone else?

Somebody has said, “Most people look upon life as a slot machine. You put as little into it as you can, and you keep hoping that you will hit the jackpot.” But wise people look upon life as a solid investment, understanding that the more you put into it, the more you are going to get out of it.

How do you look at life? As a slot machine, or as a solid investment? Are you trying to put as little into it and into the lives of others as possible, hoping to hit the jackpot of a meaningful life? Or are you putting in as much as you can, knowing that you get back what you put into it?

I talked with a businessman this past week who made an investment some time ago. At the present time, he is getting back every month as much as his original investment. Do you know what he said to me? He said, “I wish I had been able to put more into it.” If you ever look at life as the kind of investment that brings back to you according to what you put into it, you’ll stop trying to get by with as little as possible. You’ll give as much as possible, knowing that the more you give, the more you’ll get back. The more you get back, the more meaning you find in life and the more reason you have for living.

The reason the apostle Paul could say, “For me, to live is Christ,” is because he was putting so very much into life. The more he put in, the more he got back, and the more joy and satisfaction he found in life.

Some time ago the Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney quoted Herodotus as saying, “The greatest tragedy that could come to any person’s life is to aspire to do much and then to achieve little.” And Marney said, “No, that is not so. The greatest tragedy is to aspire to do something, and to do it, and then to discover it’s not worth doing.” There are a lot of people today who are wasting their time, energy, money, and efforts in things that aren’t worth doing. They are things that do not return to you that peace and satisfaction that ought to come in life. Because these people are not thinking in terms of service and sacrifice, life has no meaning. I am here to say that when you have the commitment of the apostle Paul, and you zero in on Jesus Christ and bring him into focus so that the world can see him more clearly through your life and service, it gives you a reason for living.

2. Commitment makes us content to suffer.

When the apostle Paul wrote these words, he was in prison, suffering for the cause of Christ. And he said, “As always, so now I want Christ to be magnified in me.” The amazing thing as you read this epistle and all the epistles Paul wrote while he was in prison, is that never once does he complain about his imprisonment. He never tells you what it is like to sleep on a cold stone floor in a damp dungeon. He never once tells you how inhumanely the guards treated him. He never once tells you about the deplorable food he had to eat.

You read the epistles of Paul written from prison, and you would never guess they were written from the prison. They could just as well have been written from a penthouse on a lakeside. There is no complaint about the hardships of life. He could take those hardships without complaining. He had a reason for living that was bigger than his circumstances.

I read with great interest some time ago an article in the Texas Monthly (August 1979) about Georgi Vins, that Russian Baptist pastor who spent eight years in a Siberian prison camp because according to the Russians, he had injured the health of Russian people by preaching religious doctrine. His book, Testament from Prison, is characterized by simple joy. There is no word of complaint about prison life. In contrast to all the other literature that we’ve been able to glean from the writing of other prisoners in Russia, there is no word about prison conditions. For eight years he slept on a cold concrete floor. For eight years he subsisted on barley, tea, and weak soup. He never once told anybody about it, and he never once complained about it.

He was willing to take the sufferings and the hardships because there was a commitment in his life. He said that prison for Christians is good; it strengthens their faith. In fact, he said if there were no prisoners in Russia, he doubts if there would be a church in Russia. You see, when we are committed to Christ, and when our desire is to magnify, glorify, and serve him, then that purpose is so great in our lives that everything else is inconsequential. If we live, that is fine. If we suffer, that is fine. If we die, that is fine. It really doesn’t matter so long as we can use that experience, whatever it is, to magnify him.

The prayer of my heart is that as I go through hardships and difficulties in life, I won’t begin to complain and whine and feel sorry for myself so as to focus upon myself and my problems. I pray that I’ll keep the focus on Jesus Christ. If I complain and feel sorry for myself, then I’m taking the spotlight off of him and putting it on me.

3. Commitment makes us unafraid to die.

The apostle Paul, as he stood on the edge of eternity, peered out into the darkness of death and found both life and death inviting. He was unafraid to live and unafraid to die. He faced both of them with equal courage because he knew that it would be an advantage to him in either instance since he walked with Christ.

There are two words that he uses in this passage of scripture to describe his attitude toward death. He said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He would get more than he lost when he died. He would gain the very presence of Christ.

Later on in this same passage of scripture, in verse 23 he says, “To depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better.” That word better is a term of comparison. It literally means it will be “advantageous and a step up.” In the Greek, it is translated, “it is far more better.” That gives some emphasis to it. To die is “far more better” than living. This kind of outlook on death made him unafraid of what was out in the future. There are a lot of folks who do not share that kind of optimism, that kind of hope, that kind of assurance, or that kind of courage to face death.

In 1909 Pierre Curie, a man who along with his wife discovered radium, was run over by a wagon and killed instantly. The loss of her husband was a devastating experience to Madam Curie emotionally. Thereafter for months, she wrote personal notes to him daily in her diary. In one of those notes, she described the funeral service and how they gathered by the graveside and how she kissed his cheek and said good-bye. They tried to usher the family away, but they didn’t want to leave until they had covered the grave with dirt and the dirt with flowers.

She wrote of that experience, “Pierre is sleeping his last sleep beneath the earth; it is the end of everything, everything, everything.” There are people who come to the final hour of life and they say it is the end of everything. The hymn writer William Cushing expressed something of the despair when he wrote, “Oh, to have no Christ, no Savior. How lonely life must be, like a sailor lost and driven on a wide and shoreless sea. Oh to have no Christ, no Savior, no hand to clasp thine own! Through the dark, dark vale of shadows, thou must press thy way alone.” In contrast to that despair, here is the apostle Paul who can say, “Why, to live, that is wonderful. To suffer, that is okay. But to depart and be with him, that’s better. That’s a step up. That’s an advantage.” Paul stood on the brink of death unafraid, for he had found meaning in life.

Dag Hammarskjöld, who was for many years the Secretary General of the United Nations before he died in a plane crash, was a dedicated Christian. But in the years before he became a Christian, he described the despair, the meaninglessness, and the futility of his life. In his diary entitled Markings, he makes an interesting statement about his life and the meaning he had found. He said, “Before Christ there is nothing. After Christ, there is nothing, but in Christ there is everything.” He had found in Christ a commitment that made him want to live, content to suffer, and unafraid to die. You can find those same things in Jesus and in total commitment to him.

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